So MGMT, a couple years after a gold record, a handful of legitimately stupendous electro-pop singles, involuntary inclusion in several possibly imaginary music scenes (the Wesleyan Mafia, the Brooklyn Indie-Rock Renaissance), two Grammy nominations, a touring and collaboration regimen characterized more by who they turned down (Lady Gaga, U2, Radiohead, Jay-Z—sort of), and a raft of bizarre (and oft-paisley-based) fashion debacles (co-member Andrew VanWyngarden, on headbands, in the Times: ” ‘I feel bad if I inspired lots of people to wear them,’ Mr. VanWyngarden said, convincingly”), have hauled off and tried to make their very own Tusk. A hype-obliterating, label-mortifying, hook-avoiding, masses-confusing bacchanal of labyrinthine psych-rock disorientation. The kind you’d call “difficult” or “a grower” if you worked for Columbia Records, which if so, God bless you. A real Party of No record.
It’s called Congratulations—the title directed at themselves, re: all the accolades and high-profile misadventures detailed above, very much sarcastically. I do not want what I have got, killer parties almost killed me, so on and so forth. Pretty admirable, in a completely deranged sort of way. But don’t worry: You can admire it and still not like it at all. That appears, in fact, to be the intent.
Can’t blame these guys, honestly. 2007’s Oracular Spectacular is profoundly odd in retrospect, offering as it does three of the slickest, most dazzling art-rock anthems of the past five years . . . and without question the seven most skipped-over tracks of the past decade. Everyone loves the three; no one can hum a note of the seven. All or nothing. Probably pretty annoying, from the duo’s perspective. “Time to Pretend,” in particular, tends to dwarf anything around it, a triumphant, maximalist ode to pop-star hedonism, the drums—courtesy producer Dave Fridmann, turning VanWyngarden and his paisley-clad cohort, Ben Goldwasser, into towering, planet-destroying monoliths, just like he did the Flaming Lips—absolutely colossal. No one could escape it—even (especially) the poor saps who made it.
And thus did MGMT transform into actual pop-star hedonists, though, as the run-up to Congratulations intensified, pop-star hedonists ever-increasingly hellbent on self-sabotage. The sardonic title. The terrible sub–Sonic the Hedgehog cover art. The putative first “single,” one “Flash Delirium,” a schizophrenic, impenetrable anxiety attack, Odelay‘s junkyard-funk farce rewritten as tragedy, an anti-anthem with some actually some very nice qualities—the hypnotic carnival organs, the garish horn blasts and Flaaaaaash! backing vocals, the ruthlessly corny flute solo, the psychotic freak-out of a finale—but no center to cling to, no gravity, no means of orientation. The terrifying video, directed by professional terrifying video director Andreas Nilsson, is an overwrought, deeply bizarre attempt to be weirder and more garish than the song it is accompanying. It does not succeed. No chance. Invent a scene around THIS.
It all gave you reason to fear (hope?) that Congratulations would be spectacularly terrible—a suicidal rage against the hype machine. But it’s not really spectacularly anything, except self-conscious. If this is fame-refuting nihilism, it’s painstakingly crafted, lovingly detailed fame-refuting nihilism. MGMT care too much to succeed at convincing us they no longer care.
So. “It’s Working” barges in with reverb-soaked, drawing-room surf rock, prodded by bongos and harpsichord, a surrealistic tale of decay, frustration, alienation—but is its final thesis, “Love is only in your mind/And not your heart,” deeply cynical, or just . . . literal? There are two zany, manic odes to either formative influences or professional rivals: “Song for Dan Treacy” (he of Brit psych-punkers the Television Personalities) and “Brian Eno,” the latter song almost a deeply cowed cheerleader routine: “I can tell that he’s kind of smiling/But what does he know? (What does he know?)/We’re always one step behind him/He’s Brian Eno (Brian Eno!)” There’s a deliberately nauseating throwaway ambient-horror instrumental called “Lady Dada’s Nightmare.” Falsetto power-ballad sketch “Someone’s Missing” fades out in mid-bloom, amid pained but suspiciously rousing moans of “It feels like/Someone’s missing!”; “I Found a Whistle,” a gentle but foreboding organ-and-acoustic-guitar lope, is the solace, tuned to an art-damaged pitch nobody else can hear.
And then there’s your centerpiece, the 12-minute, multi-suite “Siberian Breaks,” a quite literal spin through ’70s soft-rock radio and over-enunciated Brit-folk pretension, some of it affecting, some of it annoyingly affected, all of it finally dissolving in a pretty ambient haze, but not before deploying Congratulations‘ master thesis, mewed softly but repeatedly: “I hope I die before I get sold.”
Oh, go on. Reading story after story about MGMT’s abject refusal to write more pop smashes like “Time to Pretend,” you start to wonder if they actually could write more pop smashes like “Time to Pretend” if they ever stopped refusing to. Congratulations is in one sense awfully convenient, a spazzed-out exit strategy. Quit before you’re fired. But there’s enough of a spark here to make you wonder, and to make the record not exactly at all fun to listen to, but fascinating nonetheless, a merciless descent into the twisted psyche of two neurotic, undeniably talented, hallucinogenically compromised dudes in a very strange position of power reacting to that power in a very, very strange way. By using it to refuse it in the most theatrical, ostentatious way possible. We conclude with the title track, a sweet and tuneful low-impact T. Rex shuffle, the falsetto more relaxed now, resigned and reflective: “Out with a whimper/It’s not a blaze of glory.” Chorus:
But I’ve got someone to make reports
And tell me how my money’s spent
To book my stays and draw my blinds
So I can’t tell what’s really there
And all I need’s a great big “Congratulations”
The applause at song’s end is not yours. It’s not meant to be.